Can compost save Rwandan farmers from hunger? One case says yes.

One Acre Fund, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides over 400,000 farmers in East Africa with access to seed, fertilizer, and agriculture trainings, has helped improve their crop yields and quality of life.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
A cormorant perches on a tree, from which hang the nests of weaver birds, as it looks out across Lake Ihema in search of fish to catch at dawn in Akagera National Park, Rwanda (Sept. 7, 2015).

Raising the hand hoe high over his head, Ezira Ntegeyimbuga moves with a strength and assuredness that belies his 64 years. His middle son, 15-year-old Isaac Ndikuryayo, looks on as his father breaks up the red-brown dirt clods in a corner of their land. Breaking up the soil is the first step to creating a compost plot. 

“The compost is easy to make. Whatever materials I need are around me, and I can make it near my field where it won’t be a big problem for transportation,” Ezira says.

Ezira made compost for the first time in 2013, but he’d been hearing about the benefits of composting since 2010. That was the year he first enrolled with One Acre Fund, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides over 400,000 farmers in East Africa with access to seed, fertilizer, and agriculture trainings. One of the trainings offered was how to make and apply compost, which is proven to enrich soils with vital nutrients needed to produce healthy crops.

Ezira’s decision to join One Acre Fund wasn’t about learning to make compost. A life-long smallholder farmer from Karongi, Rwanda, Ezira’s biggest challenge was that he could never afford the cost of purchasing and transporting fertilizer from the market to his remote village. As a result, his yields were always low. So when a One Acre Fund field officer told him he could purchase seed and fertilizer on credit and get his purchase delivered to a site in his village, Ezira was excited. He immediately enrolled and was elected leader of his farmer group. 

In that first year, he harvested 110 pounds of beans and 330 pounds of maize on just one-third of an acre of land. Ezira’s excitement quickly turned to relief. His 2010 harvest, the largest of his life, was enough to feed his family for the whole year. But his relief stemmed from something else. For some time, he had been noticing troubling behavior in his sons.

“When my children were in the village and saw maize growing in someone’s field, they would just grab the maize and run away. I was depressed, and knew I had to somehow change this situation to help them,” Ezira says.

The following year, Ezira enrolled more land with One Acre Fund and planted maize and beans, again using the new methods he had learned. He harvested a whopping 154 pounds of beans and 375 pounds of maize from just under half an acre.

Buoyed by two strong harvests in a row, Ezira began to believe he could achieve success through farming. He attended One Acre Fund trainings regularly and learned about applying just a small amount of fertilizer through micro-dosing. He also learned about combining fertilizer and manure to improve soil and crop health. Ezira had a cow and a young bull, so he began collecting and applying the manure to further improve his yields.

Then, in 2013, things suddenly took a turn for the worse. Ezira’s big cow died of disease, and the young bull couldn’t produce enough manure to fertilize all his fields. That year, Ezira was only able to afford fertilizer for a very small portion of his fields, and he harvested a mere 55 pounds of beans and 110 pounds of maize.  

Ezira recalls feeling discouraged and apprehensive. “I really felt sad. I had gone backwards, and was harvesting the amount I used to harvest before joining One Acre Fund,” he says. 

During this difficult time, Ezira attended a One Acre Fund training on how to prepare compost. He had been to One Acre Fund trainings on composting in the past but hadn’t ever made a compost pile, because he knew he could count on his manure. That year, though, he paid close attention and learned how to salvage plant-based harvest waste, how to properly create compost piles, and when and how to apply the nutrient-rich organic matter to his fields.  

Ezira spent the next four months digging, stacking, scooping, and monitoring his decomposing compost pile, looking for the telltale changes in temperature and color to ensure he was on the right track. He was meticulous and determined and followed each training step to the letter. After applying the compost to his fields, Ezira found himself waiting anxiously for harvest to come. 

When harvest finally came, Ezira could not have been more pleased with the results. He had harvested 176 pounds of beans and 397 pounds of maize from just under half an acre, more than his best season with One Acre Fund. 

In the midst of placing dried maize stalks onto his compost pile, Ezira stops for a moment to reflect. “The compost training saved me from poverty and hunger,” he says. 

With his harvest back to the levels he had been counting on, Ezira has wasted no time laying his plans for the future. Inspired by his own success with composting, Ezira plans to start a composting business to sell to neighboring farmers who lack his knowledge of composting techniques.  

“The skills I learned from One Acre Fund were just the beginning. I now have to turn my skills into money,” Ezira says.

This additional income stream will play a critical role in helping Ezira achieve his most important goal: raising his sons to be good men. With the threat of hunger behind them, they have stopped getting into trouble. Ezira plans to use the income from his composting business to pay for their school supplies. 

“When a child is educated, he or she can live and survive in whatever circumstances,” Ezira says proudly. “I will send my children to school because it is my responsibility, but in the end, it is up to them to choose who they will become.”

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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